The blessings of the new age include, first and foremost, the gift of the Holy Spirit (the hallmark of genuine Christianity). And the experience of Gentile believers, beginning with Cornelius (Acts 10:44-47), was that the Holy Spirit was bestowed on them without the need for circumcision or conformity to the Jewish Law. That was how it was for the Galatians too: they had received the Spirit simply by accepting and believing the gospel (Galatians 3:1-5). Only one logical conclusion can be drawn from this: it is not necessary to be a Jew in order to be a Christian.
But the Galatians, despite accepting their initial justification by faith, had been persuaded that they needed to maintain their status as God’s people by living like Jews. This is not the Christian way: we must continue as we began, living by faith in the power of the Spirit. Otherwise, the ‘flesh’ – the old self-assertive, independent, wilful ‘I’ – takes over. And this can manifest itself in ‘religious’ behaviour (sometimes, very strict moral behaviour) as well as in sinful behaviour.
The Judaisers appealed to Moses; Paul looks back 500 years earlier, to the great patriarch Abraham. He is the prime example of a man who is declared righteous and receives God’s blessings on the grounds of faith, not of obedience to a law. His descendants will inherit his blessing, but only if they share his trust in God (Galatians 3:6-9). If, on the other hand, they put their trust in the Law, they will be caught out – for the Law pronounces a curse on those who fail to keep it perfectly (Galatians 3:10), and no-one can do this because of sin. The Law itself contains no solution to this dilemma; it was resolved only by Christ taking the curse upon himself, by submitting to death by crucifixion (Galatians 3:13).
To drive home his point, Paul analyses the promise given to Abraham in more detail. The ‘offspring’ it mentions is singular, he says, so it must be referring to a single heir – and that heir can only be the Messiah. He is the one in whom all the promises made to Abraham are fulfilled, and so it is only possible to receive the blessing through Him (Galatians 3:16).
What then was the place of the Law in God’s plan? It could not override God’s promise, and should never have been made to contradict it; it was a temporary addition, necessary in order to restrain mankind’s sinful tendencies. It educated people about the nature and extent of sin, and it made them aware of their need for forgiveness. But it could only diagnose the problem, not cure it. It could provide restraint and guidance by means of threats and punishments, and it could offer glimpses (through the sacrifices and ceremonies) of what was to come; but it could not actually deliver the promised inheritance (Galatians 3:24,25). Its very inadequacy was meant to provoke frustration, and thus to point forward to something better.